A heroic tribute

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Gallant woman travels across the country to meet and draw portraits of martyrs' mothers

64-year-old Dang Ai Viet on her diminutive green Chaly with a crudely rigged up sunshade. She has travelling over 35,600 kilometers on the bike, visiting more than 40 provinces and cities.

The old woman's eyes were opaque, but her memories of childhood were clear.

She recounted several stories and recited some poems as the artist sketched her. She was 118 years old, but her longevity and lucid mind at that age were not the most remarkable aspects of her life.

The husband and seven children of Vietnam's oldest Heroic Mother, Tran Thi Viet, born 1892 in Long An Province, had laid down their lives fighting in the wars for independence and reunification against the French and US.

That sitting, two years ago, was the last time artist Dang Ai Viet saw the subject of her portrait. The indomitable centenarian died six months later.

Viet has collected many poignant stories as she continues her unique mission of painting as many portraits as she can of an estimated 5,000 Heroic Mothers nationwide.

The 64-year-old artist has performed some heroic feats herself, traveling over 35,600 kilometers from north to south through more than 40 provinces and cities on her diminutive green Chaly with a crudely rigged up sunshade that has become the iconic symbol of her amazing project.

Over the three years since she set out on the Chaly in February 2010, she has drawn 863 portraits of Heroic Mothers, an honorific used in Vietnam for those whose spouses and/or children were martyred in the wars against colonizers and invaders.

The former chief of training department at Ho Chi Minh City's University of Fine Arts was the wife of the late People's Artist Pham Khac, a famous filmmaker and director from Ho Chi Minh City Television (HTV).

After Khac passed away in 2007, Viet embarked on her painting mission, which she called "Journey of Time," to pay her tribute to the great sacrifices and pain suffered by legions of Heroic Mothers, many of whom are living out their last days in tough circumstances.

Before he died, her husband had considered her idea, to ride to each Vietnamese Heroic Mother's house in person and paint their portraits, as quixotic, but Viet was not deterred.

Viet is in Hanoi until mid-August to attend an exhibition presenting over three hundred portraits. The exhibition, which opened July 24 at the Vietnam Women's Museum, is the third to feature Viet's works since 2010. After the exhibition closes in September, all the portraits will be donated to the Vietnam Women's Museum. They will also be published in a book called Chan Dung Me (Portraits of Mothers), which will be released soon.

Each of the watercolors carries emotional stories, of course, but Viet told Vietweek that there is another story: the fact that she has missed out on drawing a lot of mothers because they had passed away before she found them, or were too weak to sit for a portrait.

The portrait of Vietnam's oldest Heroic Mother Tran Thi Viet, whose husband and seven children laid down their lives fighting in the wars for independence and reunification against the French and US

"There are thousands of [heroic] mothers, in fact around 5,000, living all over the country. I have drawn nearly nine hundred, and this is a small number. I am afraid that I will be too late to meet them. They do not have enough time to wait for me. Some of them are too old, over 80 or nearly 100 years old, and weak. When I visit them, I just take a photograph, kiss them and pray for them. Sometimes I am too moved to hold the pencil. It is not easy to depict their spirit, because you do not see them with just your eyes, but your heart as well."

Viet has had no sponsors for her project because she does not want any "interference" in her expedition. She has used her own savings of many years and royalties from her husband's famous book Me Kong Ky Su (Mekong Chronicles). Despite this, she has never thought of selling her portraits.

However, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum has prevailed upon her to change her mind. The museum chose 70 of her portraits for a preserved collection for VND1 million each, the proceeds of which were donated completely to soldiers stationed in the Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago.

"I did that on behalf of the mothers who let me draw them. I think they will be pleased with that," she said.

While she has received accolades from all quarters, Viet is clear that her subjects are the real "national treasure."

She said her sole wish is to finish the journey and draw as many portraits as she can.

"Their images and contribution may be immortal, but their life is limited," said Viet.

Her job as training chief in a university department has given her the ability to work out good plans. So far, she said, everything has been on track, except for the occasional flat tires and painting tools falling on the street.

Viet's empathy with every mother she meets, which is reflected in her pictures, is rooted in the fact that she is also a soldier, a wife and mother who was born in wartime. She says she can understand, at least partially, the pain and agony that the mothers have gone through.

She said she cannot do more than three sketches a day because her focus has to be intense. "I leave everything aside when I am drawing them."

Viet also records her memories, feelings and stories she hears in a diary she maintains during her journey. Her notes are a treasure by themselves.

They tell the story of Bui Thi Day, a Heroic Mother in Quang Ngai Province's Binh Son Commune, who was selling sweet potatoes at a market when Viet met her. The portrait was done in the market, as the old woman could not afford to take a break from earning her livelihood.

Another entry: "I arrived at the Dai Loc Market in Dong Hoi Town. The provincial official said the mother I came to visit was sick and I could not draw her. "˜If you had come a year earlier, she could have sat for you,' he said."

Viet also remembers how, after she had finished sketching Nguyen Thi Tinh, whose only child died in 1971, the mother asked when she would come back to see her.

Fighting back her tears, she wrote, "I just told her to take care of herself. I did not dare to promise anything, since I do not know when I would be able to go back to see her."

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